Fifty Shades of Wéi (喂): Pronunciation

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David Byron

David Byron is a software developer working for the military-industrial complex. At Popehat, he writes about art, language, theater (mostly magic), technology, lyrics, and aleatory ephemera. Serious or satirical poetry spontaneously overflows from him while he's recollecting in tranquility. @dcbyron

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25 Responses

  1. MathMage says:

    This has always been the easiest part of Mandarin for me. I tell Chinese speakers that I have good 口应 (kou3 ying1), or vocal style, but no 词汇 (ci2 hui4), or vocabulary–that is, when I remember that word and don't have to resort to 知道的字不太多 (zhidao4 de zi4 bu2tai4duo1), "The words I know are not many," which is just as awkward in Chinese as it sounds in English.

  2. AlphaCentauri says:

    I don't know much about Chinese, but I do know it's "post hole digger," not "post hold digger."

  3. K. Chang says:

    Oh, the tongue twister, Chinese style. :D That was fun. I think those old Chinese poets are just trying to be exceeding clever.

  4. David says:

    Apologies for the typo.

  5. AlphaCentauri says:

    Actually, it looks like a lot of people do spell it post-hold digger now that I check. It does hold the post, after all. Must be like duck tape, where so many people spelled it "duct tape" assuming it was for taping ducts that it's become the proper name for it.

  6. David says:

    It was a typo. A typo, I say!

  7. Lago says:

    There is such a thing as duct tape, but it's not what people typically think of as duct tape. :P

  8. Blaze Miskulin says:

    Oh my god, do I hate that damn 'r' sound! :-)

    I'm currently teaching English in China, so this is very interesting for me.

    One thing I'll add: English is spoken mostly from the chest and throat. Chinese is spoken almost entirely from the mouth (if that makes sense). For example: the word "say". Say it in English, and the vowel drops into the chest. In Mandarin, it never grows past the middle of the mouth. Teaching Chinese speakers to talk from the chest is on of the challenges I face. That and the dreaded 'th' sound. :-) I have just the opposite problem-learning to bring the sounds up out of my chest.

    Thanks to the post, now that I'm officially taking classes in Mandarin, these are a helpful way to review and organize the information.

  9. LTMG says:

    Wish I had these articles about Chinese language when I was living in Shanghai and struggling with the very basics. The articles really help me visualize what I should have been attempting rather than participating in the expensive and hardly useful classes I took.

  10. GF says:

    It's generally accepted these days that Cantonese in Hong Kong has 6 tones. Otherwise, a very nice summary of Mandarin pronunciation!

  11. wgering says:

    Is it bad that this:

    Googling "pinyin chart" in your preferred search engine

    [Emphasis added]

    is my favorite part of the entire post?

  12. TJIC says:

    This post was awesome, and epic. I loved reading stuff like this; please keep posting!

    > post hole digger

    A Firefly reference?

  13. Wei Wei says:

    My wife, a linguist and native Mandarin Chinese speaker, just viewed the embedded "shi" video and assures me that, while clever, in no way translates to the poem text provided in the article.

  14. David says:

    @Wei Wei That's not an uncommon reaction. However, have her look at this while bearing in mind that the author relied on some archaic vocabulary:



    (Folks who want to follow along: if you're using Chrome, you can install this excellent plug-in which translates characters on mouse-over.)

    See also: Wikipedia's article and many websites and books that suggest she's (understandably) mistaken. It's impenetrable nonsense to the ear, but linguistically correct in a pedantic way, and illustrates through a reductio one of the pitfalls of transliterating Classical and/or contemporary Chinese.

    Please bear in mind that a version of the poem in standard written Mandarin would still have many homophones, but fewer. Also, some meanings of characters have shifted, etc.– facts about which your wife undoubtedly knows more than I.

  15. David says:

    @wgering Credit where due: I stole that line from Gilad Bracha.

  16. David says:


    It's generally accepted these days that Cantonese in Hong Kong has 6 tones.

    You're right: the reduction from 9 through 7 to 6 in Hong Kong now dominates. Those wacky capitalists with their mergers and acquisitions!

  17. David says:

    @Blaze Miskulin
    Thanks for making that point. I think the distinction you're drawing may be the same one that singers have in mind when they distinguish "head voice" from "chest voice".

    Sounds as if you're positioned for a lot of fun and many adventures. Enjoy!

  18. K. Chang says:

    What would be interesting is let a Chinese TTS (text to speech) package render that poem. :D

    I remember my first attempt at pronouncing the English word thermometer, and Yosemite. :)


  19. mojo says:

    Bu how.

  20. TJIC says:

    > It's impenetrable nonsense to the ear, but linguistically correct in a pedantic way


    And, tangentially, everyone should read this book on translation

  21. Careless says:

    tu tu tu ="[the] pig pushed [the] closet" in Hokkien. It didn't take me long to give up on Chinese.

  22. zanaga says:

    As a linguist (yes I can say that finally, woo graduation!) here's some more encouragement!
    It takes a native speaker of a language roughly eight (8) years to learn their language.
    After all, when did *you* start making sense to your elders?
    Granted, adults have a leg up, but they have other, more minor disadvantages as well. :D Go forth, and be awesome!
    (Very nice article, good bloggist!)

  23. DJ says:

    You missed a y in the list of consonants, which usually only ever comes before the umlaut'd u (except then it becomes a normal u).

    Also, when I was a 4-year old kid in Chinese school being taught everything you recapped about pingying, the consonants were grouped the exact way you placed them here. We were all fluent speakers already, though, so the teachers just gave us cute associations for all the sounds and letters (fish for umlaut u, lion for sh, pigeon or song for g, watermelon for x, etc.). Also since we were four, just having us repeat all the sounds over and over while looking at the letters was enough–like how they teach you the alphabet in kindergarden XD

  1. November 22, 2012

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